Until the mid-20th century the Protestant church and women’s groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union were gambling’s most strident critics. Gambling ran counter to the traditional reformed Protestant abhorrence of unearned income. Many High Church Anglicans and Roman Catholics had a more liberal outlook.
Gambling’s close association with drinking and prostitution was also thought to threaten public morality. Women’s opposition often came from the misery of living with husbands who were perpetually drunk and penniless due to gambling. From 1898 church leaders formed anti-gambling leagues in the main cities to ban gambling and games of chance.
Race to ruin
In 1885 the veteran politician Sir William Fox contended that horse racing demoralised, pauperised and ruined thousands who ‘might otherwise be our best colonists.’1
Due to its perceived detrimental effects, the Gambling and Lotteries Act 1881 banned public betting. But following a public backlash over the arrest and trial of a group of Chinese gamblers in Wellington – who many felt had been unfairly targeted – police enforcement became less assiduous and the act was often ignored. Its ineffectiveness was recognised in an 1885 amendment that allowed small racecourse sweepstakes.
By the 1900s public opposition to gambling had strengthened and in 1907 gambling was confined to racecourses. In 1910 a further amendment to the act banned bookmakers from racecourses and other sporting events. This was a high point of the anti-gambling movement, but the effect of the changes was to drive off-course gambling underground until the creation of the Totalisator Agency Board (TAB) in 1950.
Protestant churches also led opposition to the 1960s introduction of state-run Golden Kiwi lotteries, with many urging their members not to buy tickets and refusing to accept lottery grants. However, by the late 1970s the Presbyterian Church had conceded that buying a raffle ticket for a worthy cause caused little harm.
Stealing to gamble
Some problem gamblers turn to crime to continue gambling. In 1992 the prominent Upper Hutt lawyer Keith Edwards was sentenced to six years in jail for stealing $3–4 million in client funds to feed his gambling habit.
From the 1980s opposition to gambling was motivated less by religious or moral convictions than by a desire to relieve its harmful social impacts on individuals, their families and communities. In 1988 the government funded (from a gambling levy) the creation of the Compulsive Gambling Society to help people experiencing problems with gambling. It started as a telephone counselling service and has since expanded to include face-to-face help as well as services aimed at Asian and Pacific communities. In 2001 it became the Problem Gambling Foundation of New Zealand. Other problem gambling organisations include the Gambling Helpline and the Salvation Army Oasis Centre.
In 2012 the New Zealand Health Survey found that the proportion of New Zealand adults who took part in gambling activities declined between 2002–3 and 2011–12, from 68.7% to 52.1%. The largest fall was for Māori, whose gambling rate dropped from 72.8% to 53.3%; the smallest decline was for Asians, from 39.7% to 37.3%.
According to early-21st-century gambling research:
- $5.2 million was spent on gambling in New Zealand every day.
- Between 10,000 and 60,000 (0.3% and 1.8%) of New Zealand adults have gambling problems.
- Pokie machines were concentrated in high-deprivation areas and were the most harmful form of gambling – one in five regular pokie players was likely to have a gambling problem.
- Māori and Pacific people were more likely than other groups to be problem gamblers and suffer gambling-related harm.
While gambling harmed problem gamblers and their families and friends, most New Zealanders gambled without ill effects – other than an occasional hole in the wallet. Research has revealed the opportunity to win prizes and money was the main attraction, followed by the excitement and challenge of gaming activities.
With ‘fashion in the field’ parades at major race meetings and images of dapper ‘high rollers’ at casinos, the industry has gained a glamorous edge that attracts both regular punters and those wanting an occasional fun day or evening out.